SSWs present some very interesting opportunities (and challenges) from a copyright perspective. As soon as you allow the remixing of content in your SSW, whether it’s content you created or submitted content you published, you have to decide what kind of legal license framework you want. Ideally, this will be shaped by your goals for the SSW and the kind of experience you want to create for audiences. And, ideally, you’ll seek legal guidance from an attorney.
Some creatives want to maximize collaboration and remixing of content, so they construct legal frameworks that support this kind of SSW. Others prefer a more conservative approach (e.g., the SSW owner retains complete control over all content) with select invitations for audiences to contribute being issued in very managed and controlled ways.
Whatever you decide, default copyright is both country- and state/province-specific, so you’ll need to get appropriate legal advice on what applies to you and your SSW.
However, there is an increasingly popular, optional and additional legal license you can apply to your SSW if it makes sense for you: Creative Commons (CC).
CC is a non-profit providing a variety of free licenses that give the public additional rights above and beyond default copyright. Creative Commons has done the homework of crafting legal licenses tailored to work with the default copyright laws in many countries.
To be clear, a CC license does not replace default copyright. Rather, it grants additional rights above and beyond copyright, smoothing the road to collaboration. Many people erroneously think all CC content is free to use or conflicts with commercial endeavors. In reality, CC licenses can be used in a variety of ways, both commercially and non-commercially, and, depending on the CC license you choose, you can select just how many rights are granted to the public.
Still a bit confused? Check out this video on the CC website (8 min). It explains CC licenses, as well as what happens when copyright, CC, and commerce intersect.
CC has rapidly gained acceptance over the past few years, showing up on sites like Flickr.com, Wikipedia.com, and most recently YouTube.
For example, if I publish a film under a UK-specific CC-BY-NC-ND license, I am giving anyone the right to copy, distribute, and share my film – legally and at no cost. They don’t even need to contact me for permission (that’s essentially what the license does – it explicitly grants permission). However, they can neither commercially use the film nor can they remix or alter it, and they have to provide proper attribution to me when they use the film.
The CC licenses span a wide spectrum of additional rights, so it’s likely you can find one that meets your needs if you decide to add another legal layer in addition to default copyright. And there are both country-specific and global or non-country-specific (called “unported”) versions to choose from.
Why would you use CC? Some published authors, like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, allow digital versions of their published works to go out under a CC license because they believe allowing the free sharing of digital copies ultimately drives sales of printed materials, gains them additional exposure (which can translate to paid speaking engagements), and will ultimately result in higher sales of even digital copies.
Yes, you read that correctly. But why would a consumer pay for something they have already obtained for free (legally or not)?
A lot of fans end up purchasing legal digital copies of content they may have initially obtained illegally or freely. They do this for the convenience a legal copy may offer (higher quality) and to support authors they love, knowing that the author is more likely to continue writing if they are making money.
Still other authors, like Jim Butcher (author of the Harry Dresden series) permit audiences to write fan fiction, but only if fans publish their works under a CC license.
The Angry Robot Books’ Worldbuilder platform uses a CC license as part of its process to encourage fandom based around novels published by Angry Robot Books (the first Worldbuilder offering, “Empire State,” was recently indexed here).
Some SSW creatives want to encourage collaboration and see CC as a way to knock down some of the legal hurdles by providing explicit permission to remix content under certain conditions (no need to seek approval from the creative or deal with costly one-off legal contracts).
There are many ways to apply CC, as there are many advantages for doing so. BUT…
…the use of a CC license has permanent and significant consequences to your control and rights over your work.
CC has yet to be used by many of the larger media companies, and obtaining funding for a CC project can be a challenge. Just as the legal structure you choose for your startup (corporation, S-corp, LLC, etc.) can affect the appeal and ease with which you can attract and accept venture capital investments, the legal structure your content can affect how appealing investors may find your property. If your hope is to license or sell your content to a media company (especially Hollywood!), carefully consider the use of CC before applying it.
All is not lost, however. You can achieve the same legal result of a CC license without using CC. How? Simply include appropriate language in your licensing or legal agreements with your audiences. The downside of replicating CC without using a CC license is you will miss out on the immediate recognition of the CC brand. Within a lot of creative communities, CC carries a weighty cachet and has a very positive image. It implies a default towards creative-friendly approaches to media.
As with many SSW design considerations, the use of CC depends on many variables. Be sure to seek the advice of an attorney, carefully review the terms of the CC licenses, and be certain that CC is right for your professional goals and your SSW. Once content is published under a CC license, it is theoretically impossible to undue it!